The arts of the Nieman Foundation at 75
Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism, one of the oldest and most prestigious study programs for members of the media, turns 75 during this academic year. More than 1,400 journalists from 92 countries and territories have taken a year to exhale, explore, expand their horizons at the Walter Lippmann House on Francis Avenue, where the foundation is located. In 2008, under the leadership of then curator Bob Giles, the foundation established a special fellowship for an arts and culture reporter to be a part of the class each year. Ann Marie Lipinski, the current curator and host to a heady three-day celebration that kicks off Friday, Sept. 27, has added the A&C slot to the regular lineup of beat reporters accepted into each class, which this year includes NPR’s Alison MacAdam who is studying the intersection of arts with business, law and technological innovation, as well as the ways cultural institutions are preparing for the future. We asked Lipinski about the role of A&C journalists for the fellowship and for the larger dialogue in the media.
Each year, the Nieman Foundation includes an arts and culture fellow. Why is it important to have this voice in the mix of the Nieman class?
One of the strengths of the Nieman class every year is the rich range of experience and knowledge that each fellow brings to the fellowship. Just as in a newsroom, that diversity of perspective is important to our understanding of the world and how things work. This past fellowship year, we were fortunate to have three extraordinarily accomplished arts journalists – an architecture critic, a book review editor, and a food and restaurant critic. Buildings, books, food – they’re every bit as fundamental as politics or government or, sadly, war reporting, and when you gather people of tremendous skill in each of these areas there is a kind of learning that takes place that elevates them all.
Most newspapers have diminished or eliminated the arts beat. What’s your argument for arts coverage?
The larger media organizations have maintained varying levels of arts and culture coverage, but it’s true that in many smaller markets arts reporting and criticism are regarded as expensive luxuries. I know from my own years editing a newspaper, readers of arts coverage are extremely engaged and passionate, which is the best kind of reader. When those connections are broken – when engaged
readers no longer find their interests reflected in their newspaper – they are very hard to recover. And communities themselves are diminished when journalists stop paying attention to culture. At the same time, there is a new generation of critics and arts aggregators developing on social media. They’re not a substitute for coverage of your local community theater, but they’re welcome additions to the conversation.
What are the elements of strong and meaningful arts writing, and how do those qualities compare to other types of journalism?
First, knowledge. I’ve edited and worked with a lot of critics and arts reporters and the very best have a deep, sophisticated understanding of the art form they cover. Many have been formally educated in the area, be it music, film, art, architecture or another discipline. Others have acquired the knowledge through rigorous, attentive reporting. However you come by the knowledge, there is no substitute for it, and critics who think opinion alone is sufficient will never be excellent. At the same time, for an arts critic, knowledge without the ability to frame a sharp and persuasive argument is insufficient. Telling readers what you know is one thing, but convincingly telling them what you think about it too is much harder than it seems. The expression “everyone’s a critic” is both true and misleading since we all have opinions but most of us are not skilled enough to make a living at it. I’ve worked with critics who see their role as an activist one and others who approach criticism as edifying or entertaining. But in all cases, the best of them are both smart about their fields and very gifted at written argument. Accuracy, speed, fairness and the other journalistic fundamentals apply as well, of course, just as they do on any beat.